The latest series of revelations regarding the torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of Iraqi prisoners by Coalition forces make for yet more depressing and horrible news.
However, the dominant discussion - in the west at least - has centred on a misplaced ideal: that the “rules” of war are observed and that citizens should expect their government and militaries to “play nice” and that, accordingly, we should be outraged when they don't.
Not to detract from the terrible experience of everyone held captive and abused in every conflict, but the real focus of our outrage should be war itself!
Fear: the ultimate weapon
While attempting to operate within this set of rules (funnily enough ... like most rules ... designed by the people who create the problem in the first place) it becomes apparent - and frankly, understandable - that militaries and states are going to fall short of the mark. Working within the most limited of interpretations only soldiers should be killed in war. However, we all know the reality.
When soldiers experience the full spectrum of fear - from being terrified for their own lives, to being in a position of power over other peoples (and thus becoming the thing to be feared) - it is not surprising that the “rule book” goes flying out the nearest window. States spend vast amounts of time and energy preparing men and women to kill each other: the process involves dehumanising the enemy as much as providing practical training on how to murder (or be a cog in the murderous machine).
It should come as no surprise then that they are easily able to ritually humiliate and degrade their captives.
Pretending that it is all down to a few “bad apples” is merely a way of blaming individuals, absolving governments of responsibility, and ignoring the underlying issue.
Expending energy wringing hands over this particular display of abhorrent behaviour by troops avoids the real issue: war - and all its horrible components - is our real enemy.
One of the consequences of the publicity and outcry over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners has been a wider debate about how and when Coalition troops should cease their occupation of Iraq (practically as well as in legal terms).
In some western leftist circles support for militant armed uprising to “overthrow” the coalition forces is becoming a dominant call. In others, the need for a UN-sponsored deal, with a postwar military presence, is seen as the only solution.
Another suggestion is to simply withdraw all the foreign troops and corporations and let the Iraqis sort it out themselves (though there is also a view that somehow “they” could not possibly manage the country without external “assistance”).
All of these views (and many others) - and their political origins - are basically incompatible. However, the one thing that they all have in common is that the people generally suggesting these “solutions” have little power whatsoever to influence what actually happens in this scenario.
Finding common ground
One of the greatest challenges facing activists and campaigners worldwide must be to discover how, while recognising the importance of each other's struggles and offering practical support and solidarity, we retain our integrity around the tactics used and strategies employed.
The uncritical support for violent struggles - because we understand the nature and reasoning behind the struggle - is as bad as the outright dismissal of a cause because we do not approve of the tactics employed to bring about the change desired. The left and liberal pacifism can both, respectively, be guilty of these responses.
Diversity of tactics?
The idea that we should be able to create opportunities for action that can embrace a “diversity of tactics” is a nice one (see, for example, an interesting article on this topic by Starhawk at http://peacenews.info/issues/2444/beyondviolence.html), though organising the practical implementation of this appears to require a lot of energy. There is certainly scope for exploration here.
Perhaps the most important thing is that pacifists and nonviolent activists remain open to learning about and understanding the diverse range of social, political and economic justice struggles that are taking place locally, nationally and internationally, the groups involved, their underlying ideas and ideals and the tactics they employ to attempt to bring about change.
There also has to be a basic understanding of where the genuine opportunities to affect change actually exist - and over what kind of period of time positive change could occur. The war in Iraq is one terrible event in a long list of war and peace scenarios: we must stay focused on the outrage that is war itself.